Over at Campbell Brown's PR site, the 74, Andrew Rotherham (Bellwether) and Richard Whitmire (general reformsterism) make the argument that charter opponents are "on the wrong side of history" and that charter schools are the true common schools. You will not be surprised to read that I disagree.
In truth, the ideal of the common school is one the country has never lived up to. While we romanticize the common school, people too frequently forget that those schools were at different times not open to blacks, religious minorities, or, until the 1970s, students with special needs and disabilities.
Despite serving those groups today, the continuing trend of segregated housing and the staggeringly uneven performance of different public schools prompts this question: What exactly is all that common about the common school anyway?
First, it's important to recognize the True Parts of what they are saying-- ever since this country latched onto the idea of a common school and public education, we have struggled with living up to that ideal. This is not surprising-- as public institutions under public control, schools have reflected and expressed every twist and turn, every shameful lapse and every difficult step forward in the public life of this country. Public schools have not always delivered on their promise, and in some places, are still not delivering on it today.
So when I oppose modern charters, I don't do so with the insistence that public schools have no problems. They have plenty of problems (just like, and because of, the problems in the country as a whole). Those problems are real. But charter boosters are not proposing solutions to them.
Take "segregated housing," which is having a moment as a reformster buzzword. I'll view it as something more than a rhetorical trick when it is accompanied by a discussion of how to address that issue directly, or a spirited stand against trends such as gentrification in which rich folks are allowed to drive poor folks out of their neighborhoods. Of course, some critics argue that charter schools are in fact tools of gentrification. So this point will carry more weight where charters are proposed as a part of the solution and not part of the problem. Show me a charter that promises to take every single student from its home neighborhood-- every single one, without exception. Show me charter operators who stand up for their poor customers and advocate for housing regulations that protect those poor citizens from being pushed out.
How else do the writers advocate for charters as the new common school?
Rotherham and Whitmire argue that charters are getting results, that they are hothouses for growing innovation. But after all these years, charters still have nothing to teach public school. Not one pedagogical technique, not one educational innovation to point at that has spread into public education. What charters have "discovered" is what public schools have always known-- if you don't have to accept every single student in your neighborhood, without exception, without excuse, AND if you have ample funding and facilities, AND if you can also narrowly define "success" (as, say, a pair of scores on a single standardized test)-- then you can do much better than schools that don't have all those advantages. None of this is news to anybody.
In other words, where charters can point to anything like success, it is precisely because they are NOT common schools, fully and equally open to all students within their reach.
Rotherham and Whitmire also argue about accountability, but these are arguments hold no water at all. None.
That accountability starts with parents who choose those schools, or don’t, which is the ultimate accountability.
That is not even close to the ultimate accountability. The ultimate accountability is a school board that must stand for election, and which must answer to parents and community members who show up at public meetings to speak their mind. Accountability is parents and taxpayers who may see a schools financial records any time they want to. Accountability is parents and taxpayers who can call a school at any time to question what goes on within those walls. Are there school districts that try to weasel their way around all of these things? Absolutely-- and they do it to avoid accountability, and they have to weasel around to do so because no public school can simply say, as Eva Moskowitz did to the entire state of New York, "We're a private corporation and you have no right to look at our books."
"Voting with your feet" is a lousy form of accountability. If you walk out of a restaurant and never come back, those owners have no idea of what to improve, and the restaurant just closes-- still unsure of why. It does no good for schools to close repeatedly. It does not serve student interests to be shunted about from failed charter to failed charter.
Charter advocates have taken to saying that the closing of charter schools (at least 2,500 in the last fifteen years) is a sign of a healthy system, a feature the public system ought to emulate. But why? Why treat schools as disposable pop-up businesses? Students and communities benefit from stability-- not constant churn and burn.
Charter schools are not common schools. They don't take on all students in a community. They are not accountable to citizens in that community.
Some public schools may well be disastrous messes, but charter operators propose to save just some of the students, and in the process make matters far worse for the students they leave behind. I would give charter fans points at least for consistency if they said, "Public schools are failing, so we'd like to replace the whole system." But they don't. They say, "Public schools are failing, so we'd like to replace just some parts of the system-- the profitable parts."
Rotherham and Whitmire salt their argument with talking points that simply aren't true. They cite The Prize including Russakoff's incorrect data about costs in Newark-- you can get the truth here and here. They praise New Orleans for having "toughest public oversight," despite NOLA's scattered and uncoordinated charter non-system having no accountability for knowing where students are.
And Rotherham and Whitmire pull up the old refrain of union's and "adult interests," suggesting that the Washington decision was all about the teachers' unions. And having made their case, they summarize:
So which school better serves the common good, the traditional school that barely keeps its head above water and is awash in the politics of the various adult interests or the high-performing charter that can use its autonomy to focus on students?
Again-- let's acknowledge the true parts. Public schools are awash in the politics of various adult interests, because there are many, many, many interests that intersect at schools. Parents. Teachers. Taxpayers. Business. Vendors. Anybody anywhere in the community. All of these people have interests in the school, including those like parents and teachers who also speak on behalf of the interests of children.
What Rotherham and Whitmire are suggesting is that education is better served by silencing ALL of those people, and substituting the wisdom of the charter operator, who is not "awash" in all those interests because he is free to ignore any interests he feels like ignoring. What they call "autonomy" is a lack of accountability, a freedom to ignore taxpayers who pay the bills but have no school-age children, parents who don't fit the charter's vision, elected officials who are accountable to the citizens, and, yes, those terrible awful teachers and their unions. It's true: democracy is messy, and sometimes you don't get your own way.
Just shut up, they say, and watch how well we make the trains run on time.
Charter boosters are next going to argue, "So, what? We're supposed to abandon students in those failing public schools?"
It's a fair question, but I have to point out that every charter does, in fact, abandon a whole bunch of students in schools that have had resources stripped by charters, making it harder to help those abandoned students. But no-- we're not supposed to abandon anybody.
So what should we do?
Take care of the true common schools.
Fully fund each and every one. Keep the elected board awash in politics, which is just another way of saying that the community should keep pressure on for what they want. In fact, state government's also need to be awash in politics so that states like Washington will stop ignoring their obligation to fully fund each and every school. Improve teacher training, and take steps to make the profession more attractive. Roll back the idiocy of Common Core and the Big Standardized Test and let teachers teach. And make a larger national effort to address poverty in both its causes and effects.
Charter fans dismiss and write off "failing" public schools, but they have never put half the effort into improving existing schools that they have thrown into creating new ones from the ground up. I watch the huge amounts of money and activism and money and influence-peddling and money that the charteristas sink into promoting and creating and funding and advertising charters, and I think about how much we could help public schools with that sort of concentrated effort. Think of what could be accomplished with so many resources focused on the common good, and not just return on investment.